25 November, 2013Issue 23.4HistoryReligion

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Who do people say I am?

Fergus McGhee

Zealot Reza Aslan
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Westbourne Press, 2013
£17.99
336 pages
ISBN 978-1908906274


Jesus is back. After the shrewd reimaginings of Colm Toíbín’s Booker-shortlisted The Testament of Mary (2013), and J.M. Coetzee’s somewhat elliptical The Childhood of Jesus (2013), comes Reza Aslan’s historical blockbuster. Instead of fiction, Aslan promises us the facts: this is who Jesus really was.

The most popular of recent efforts in this vein was also the most pious: Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy (2007-2012), which reached sales well into seven figures and vigilantly eschewed serious historical treatment whenever it threatened to throw up doctrinal unpleasantness. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth may not be free from prejudices of its own, but it’s far too illuminating to be in danger of an imprimatur.

No doubt, Aslan’s got some nerve to serve up critical commonplaces as “a fresh perspective”: the theory that Jesus was a failed revolutionary can be traced at least as far back as the work of Reimarus, published posthumously in the daisy-fresh 1770s. Aslan’s tendency towards magisterial generalisation is equally bold, given that New Testament scholarship is governed by hair-splitting beadiness. Nevertheless, that he is able to construe his thesis as at all provocative is ample proof of the dislocation between biblical scholarship and popular impressions of Jesus. As an earnest attempt to bridge that gap, Zealot deserves some credit.

Reconstructing the historical Jesus is rather like solving a murder. Of course, we know it was the Romans ‘wot dunnit’, but when it comes to Jesus’s life we have to attempt to make sense of some extraordinary clues, a few of which may turn out to be false leads. We try our best to assimilate the clues into our portrait (or Gestalt) of Jesus. And then we ask how much explanatory power this portrait has and address the need to account for any evidence that doesn’t fit. How we treat the New Testament (the source of the vast majority of the clues, and something of a dodgy dossier) is clearly crucial, and whatever methods we employ, we have to apply them consistently. Aslan is surely familiar with the various principles which scholars use to determine the genealogy of biblical texts, but they don’t much feature in Zealot. Almost in the same breath he will dismiss some passage as “patently fictitious” and rely upon another to support his argument, without providing any justification for either judgment. This is a real shame, because it makes it easier than it should be to discredit Aslan’s conclusions. Naturally, if you’re Fox News, the mere fact that Aslan is a Muslim is quite decisive enough, and handily saves you the effort of actually reading a book. The appalling interview which the network subjected him to quickly went viral and is largely, if ironically, why Zealot has become a bestseller.

Where Aslan really succeeds is in situating Jesus within a rich historical context. First-century Palestine was a peasant society organised by exploitation, in which wealth was channelled upwards to the ruling elites and above all to the priestly aristocracy centred around the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the largest commercial hub in Judea as well as the seat of Jewish ritual, the repository of all official records, as well as of the books of the sacred Law. And the taxes which the Temple authorities exacted both kept the priestly families awash with milk and honey and paid for the hefty tribute to Rome, leaving the vast majority of the population destitute.

The priests used their religious authority to legitimate and sustain this system: untithed produce was classified as impure, non-observant Jews were ostracized, and the Torah’s explicit prohibition on priests owning land (after all, tithes were originally commanded because the Levites had no land of their own) was conveniently reinterpreted to mean they were not allowed to work it. In fact, they became vast landowners.

Numerous Jewish revolutionaries—both before and after Jesus—harnessed the radical disaffection this provoked to launch apocalyptic crusades against the imperial occupier and its Temple collaborators, and Aslan recounts their various fates with gusto. He is also careful to distinguish between these “zealots” and the Zealots with a capital “Z”, who led the short-lived Jewish revolt long after Jesus’s death. Zeal (qin’ah) wasn’t necessarily insurrectionary, but what the word nicely captures in the context is the inextricability of politics and religion in the ancient world: the zeal of the Jews was a passionately religious commitment to a certain way of life. Aslan situates Jesus squarely within a pattern of earlier zealous dissidence, citing two vital pieces of evidence.

The first is what has become known as Jesus’s “cleansing” of the Temple, attested by all four canonical gospels. This incident was the proximate cause of Jesus’s arrest, and Aslan demonstrates how dangerously political an act it was. When Jesus overturns the traders’ tables and accuses the priests of having made God’s temple a “den of thieves” it is an indictment not of the helpless cashiers (though I did once witness a high street bank teller, probably on the minimum wage, being harangued by an old woman about bankers’ bonuses) but of the Temple’s blasphemous role in upholding a system of oppression. In a separate scene, so the gospel narratives go, the priests press Jesus about his view of the tribute to Rome, trying to trap him into saying something treasonable. Aslan recognises that when Jesus tells them to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” he is not side-stepping the political dynamite but lighting the fuse. Aslan takes it even further: he hears in these words a ferocious Jewish nationalism. “Take your filthy money and get out of God’s land!” “Romans go home!”

Aslan’s exhibit B is the Crucifixion, a punishment reserved for seditionists. He says the titulus placed atop Jesus’s cross by the Romans—”King of the Jews”—was not a sarcastic jest but the name of Jesus’s crime, according to custom. Of course, it was both. But it doesn’t settle the question of Jesus’s real ambitions. After all, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, Pilate ordered executions so frequently that he was eventually recalled to Rome to account for himself. It’s therefore a doubly curious fact that none of Jesus’s followers were executed, given that the routine was to round up as many supporters as possible. Judas the Galilean, for instance—who led a violent revolt during Jesus’s childhood—was crucified with around 2,000 of his fellow rebels. Could it be because Jesus’s movement was peculiarly non-violent?

Aslan doesn’t seem quite sure. On page 79 we learn that Jesus “was not a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion”; 40 pages later, we are told that Jesus “was not a fool” and knew that “God’s sovereignty could not be established except through force”, that he foresaw “blood-stained streets” and his own coronation as King of a restored Israel gloriously purged of Roman interlopers. Which is it?

Aslan stakes his arguments in the ground of the latter. But this excessively narrow conception of Jesus’s politics—nationalistic, megalomaniacal, wholly directed towards a coup d’état—is hard to square with the tradition of wisdom material (Jesus’s paradoxical parables and aphorisms) which scholars regard as substantially authentic. Aslan claims that Jesus “seems to have had no interest at all in laying out how God’s reign on earth would actually function.” Well, if you conceive of it in Aslan’s terms—a top-down change of government—perhaps not. But if you think of it, as Jesus certainly seems to have done, as a radically alternative vision of society, you need only look to the subversive, hard-hitting irony he deployed to confound expectations and disturb ordinary ways of seeing. Jesus’s strenuous commands and outrageous dénouements are all about blowing up conventional wisdom.

Any credible portrait of Jesus must take this important aspect of his historical personality seriously. It rules out of court both Aslan’s common-or-garden revolutionary Jesus and 19th-century Liberal Protestantism’s unthreatening professor-of-morality Jesus. Only a truly scandalous Jesus will do.

Skandalon” is a watchword of St Paul’s. Aslan maligns him as a hellenizing villain responsible for the deracinated, and deradicalized, Christianity of Nicea. “To be clear”—to borrow one of Aslan’s somewhat bossy verbal tics—this is a moth-eaten misrepresentation. Far from being “divorced from Judaism”, Paul’s writings are steeped in Jewish themes, motifs, analogies, and types. He quotes extensively from the scriptures to support his claim that Jesus is ho kyrios”, the Lord. Indeed, this is the very word the Septuagint (the authoritative Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in Paul’s day) uses to translate the Jewish name for God, YHWH. Aslan reads Paul’s insistence that “Christ is the end of the Torah” as a repudiation of the old religion, but as any good Aristotelian will tell you, telos can mean “end” in the sense of goal as well as in the sense of termination. Paul is exploiting the ambiguity to make a point about how Christ is both continuous and discontinuous with the Law.

It’s also not quite true that Jewish monotheism was rigidly inhospitable to any suggestion that Jesus might be more than a man. As much recent scholarship has shown, there are rich Jewish traditions of reflection on divine immanence (the personifications of Wisdom and Word, Jewish angelology) as well as the “two powers in heaven” tradition, which could have provided the conceptual wherewithal for a “high” Christology that was nonetheless thoroughly Jewish. And there is good reason to believe the “binitarian” devotion of the earliest Christians (that is, the worship of God and Jesus) developed independently of Paul’s say-so.

Finally, Paul’s letters show just how politically explosive a high Christology can be. Paul’s language about the “son of God” is calculatedly provocative, a vilification of the theological claims of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (Augustus through to Nero). Indeed, Paul exploits the whole discourse of the imperial cult as if to portray Caesar’s vaunted dominion of “peace and security” as a bogus version of the real thing, which is the reign of Jesus, the world’s true “Saviour”, whose “justice” is no sham.

Aslan’s antithesis, then, between history’s revolutionary Jewish hero and Paul’s “celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter” is too crude. Indeed, it’s a theologically, rather than historically, determined sort of narrative: a counter-polemic to the overwhelmingly domesticated Jesus of much 21st-century Christianity. Perhaps that’s no bad thing. But it means that Aslan tends to brush aside the evidence for Jesus’s non-violence as if this would be a concession to those who want to tame him. Au contraire. Non-violent resistance is not the resort of a misty-eyed “fool”: it represents a challenge far more radical than that of those other Jewish revolutionaries we have long forgotten.

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.